Coefficient of Fiction

A Transmedia Travelogue

What’s in the Bxx?

This week, I’m going to talk about another transmedia property I had the privilege to take part in, an experimental web series called “Bxx: Haunted,” helmed by Daniel Knauf, creator of HBO’s “Carnivale.”  For a time, after “Carnivale’s” untimely cancellation, Dan and his son Charlie wrote the “Iron Man” comic for Marvel.  It was because of that (and my three-year stint as a staff writer for Comic Book Resources) that I first became passingly acquainted with the Knaufs.  So when I read about Dan Knauf’s groundbreaking idea for a transmedia web series, I did not hesitate to reach out and offer my services.

In “Bxx: Haunted,” Dan Knauf and his loyal crew set out to tell the story of a paranormal investigation gone wrong.  But their goal was to tell the ENTIRE story.  So they set up 16 cameras in a house in Pasadena, rolled for 32 hours straight, and let their actors eat, breathe and sleep their characters until the story had played out.  There wasn’t a script per se so much as a series of primers, tailored to each character, instructing the actors about their backstory, personalities, and certain key emotional beats they had to hit at specific times, etc. (not unlike what I’m told was provided to the actors in “The Blair Witch Project”).  “Bxx: Haunted” was originally slated to take place over 48 hours, but my understanding is the entire experience became too taxing on the actors involved, so they were forced to move up their timetable on the fly.  Unfortunately, I didn’t become involved with the project until after this insane 32-hour odyssey had already been shot.  I would love to have been present for that part of the undertaking.  Ultimately, all of these hundreds of hours of footage were presented, unedited, on the show’s website in 6 minute intervals.  Viewers could watch as much of the story as they wanted, in whatever order they wanted.  There’s also a way to synch up multiple cameras so you can watch different rooms at once.

My chief task on the project turned out to be working with Dan’s son Charlie to create what Dan affectionately refers to as “ephemera.”  The supposedly haunted house where the story took place had a long fictional history, as did the primary characters in the story, so Charlie and I were tasked to write old newspaper and magazine articles about some of the house’s sordid former occupants, paranormal research papers supposedly written by cast members, police reports, and all manner of supplementary, world-building material.

And while we were in the midst of producing this material, I came up with what I thought was a novel way of presenting the material to the fans.  I’d recently been playing through the Xbox game “Arkham City,” in which fulfilling certain achievements unlocked piece of narrative back story.  It occurred to me that, to encourage exploration through the countless hours of material, this ephemera that Charlie and I were producing might best be made “unlockable,” i.e. watching a particular 6-minute segment of the show from a particular angle would allow a viewer to access a particular piece of supplementary content that was germane to what was happening in that clip.  I figured that would foster fan discussion, and appeal to the completionist tendencies of the video game generation, who would want to unlock all of the supplementary material just to say they did it.  So I was excited when Dan and his team took my advice and implemented that evidence-gathering approach to the supplementary material Charlie and I created.

And for those of you who are a little overwhelmed by the prospect of sifting through hundreds of hours of content, Dan and Co. have edited together a traditional, found-footage feature film out of the project, which is actually a good entre to the world of the series.  You may think that by watching the movie first, knowing the end will spoil the journey, but I would beg to differ.  The film actually works as something of a framing device, and watching the film makes you wonder what happened in the footage the film didn’t show you.  Not only that, the cast is so entrenched in their roles that you almost can’t even call it acting, and watching the way they unravel over 32 hours is a fascinating experience in and of  itself.

I had a blast working with Dan, Charlie and the rest of the cast and crew on “Bxx: Haunted,” and I encourage each and every one of you to head over to their site and check out the project.  I know Dan loves the possibilities that this format presents, and wants to use it to tell other stories.  “Bxx: Haunted” is kind of a dry run for this new type of narrative storytelling, and it’s being shaped by fans like you and me who provide feedback as we delve into this nigh bottomless well of material that Dan and Co. have produced.  Working on the project was a great experience, and I hope I get to work with those folks again in the future.

Uroboros Map

First off, I apologize for not releasing this new entry on Wednesday: That night I appeared on a panel co-sponsored by Social Media Week and the IAWTV called Merging Social Media and Online Storytelling, and that distracted me from releasing our regularly-scheduled blog. For those who want to check it out after the fact, you can watch the entire panel here. All right, now that that’s taken care, let me tell you a bit about the most recent “Fury of Solace” ARG.

During Production for the most recent cycle of the series, we realized we would be filming a lot of vlogs set in Uroboros’ apartment. To spice up the otherwise uninteresting space, we decided to put a map of L.A. on the wall behind him, and in typical conspiracy theorist fashion, adorn it with an increasingly intricate array of push-pins and multi-colored yarn strands over the course of said vlogs. But not content to stop there, we then took a photo of the completed map and used Flash to create an interactive map, allowing viewers to delve into the depths of Uroboros’ insanity and understand how each and every one of those push-pins connects to the unfolding plot.

But I always intended for this map to be more than just an intriguing piece of supplementary ephemera. I figured we could build an ARG around it. The original notion was that we would incorporate geocaching elements, have a secret link on the map which revealed the location of a flash drive that we’d hidden somewhere in real-world Los Angeles. On the drive would presumably be a video of Uroboros, admitting that his conspiracy blog the Flashlight had failed; they’d cried wolf so many times that when they came across an actual conspiracy, no one was willing to listen. But the fugitive Uroboros knew that his days were numbered, and truly believed that someone had to carry on in his footsteps shining a light on the truth, should anything happen to him. So Uroboros had set up a new blogsite called the Lighthouse, and he’d urge whoever found the his message to assume ownership of the site and keep hope alive.

Ultimately, we didn’t have the resources to set up an actual geocaching experience, nor did we have the time to film a final video with Uroboros, so instead, the secret link on the map led to a pdf, a final letter from Uroboros, which conveyed essentially the same information as described above. The only difference was, Uroboros made his would-be successor jump through one final hoop: he’d encoded the password to the Lighthouse wordpress site into the map using a book cipher, so if one of his followers wanted to pick up where Uroboros left off, they’d have to put a little work into it.

Interestingly, the Flash map had a few glitches that needed working out, and it was not in fact ready for release until late Monday night. I didn’t want to post the seeds of this ARG that late, because I knew most people would not be on Twitter at that time of night, but I was backed into a corner, because Uroboros was setting out to crash the Mason International Charity Ball that Monday night where the character was destined to die, and I wanted him to post the map beforehand. I figured I could just have the Fury of Solace Twitter account draw attention to Uroboros’ unusually-scheduled Tweets the next morning. But I failed to take into account that we have an international audience. One of our fans in England was awake and checking Twitter when Uroboros posted the clues that Monday, and by the time I woke up the next day, he had not only found Uroboros’ hidden letter and successfully decoded the WordPress password, he’d actually posted a blog to the site! So we had an in-canon blog that was started by a now-dead character, run entirely by a fan. Exciting stuff! As I understand it, there were quite a few similar instances of blurring the lines between in-canon narrative and fan sites in the grandfather of all transmedia web series, “LonelyGirl15” (which, interestingly enough, counted Maxwell Glick amongst its cast members, the actor who portrays Uroboros).

Uroboros’ secret final message also instructed the fan who found it to alert his former Flashlight collaborators on Twitter that the new conspiracy site the Lighthouse was open for business. Our very game fan did exactly that, and made the character @RealJackBower a co-administrator of the site, so now I, as that character, can use the Lighthouse to further advance the story, but so can our lucky fan in the UK. And by allowing fan contributions, hopefully the Lighthouse can develop the community that the Flashlight lacked.  For a recap of the entire ARG, click here.

These last several posts have been a deluge of information on “Fury of Solace,” I promise we’ve got some upcoming posts on different topics. And I’ll have an announcement to make about an exciting new Transmedia venture very soon. Stay tuned!

Incriminating Messages

Historically, ARG’s were an important part of how we chose to tell the Fury of Solace story, and I wanted that to continue into our new cycle.  But said new cycle was much more expansive and complicated than anything we’d produced prior, which didn’t leave ample time or resources to mount ARG experiences as ambitious as what we’d tried at San Diego Comic-Con, so I decided to tread on familiar ground by coming up with more Twitter-based ARG’s.  I was keenly aware that not too may people were invested in our new character Uroboros, and that was troubling because the lion’s share of our new cycle was going to be told from his perspective.  Originally, the character of Fury of Solace was supposed to largely ignore Uroboros until the protest in Episode 4.4, but I realized we needed to move up that timetable.  Fury of Solace had thousands of followers and Uroboros only had about 30.  It seemed to me that the best way to draw attention to Uroboros was to have him interact on Twitter with Fury of Solace.  But at the same time, the story required that the two characters not be allies, per se, so I concocted a Twitter ARG that represented a short-term, tentative alliance between Fury of Solace and Uroboros.

In this new version of the timeline, Fury of Solace was paying enough attention to Uroboros to be intrigued when the latter started posting internal Mason International security footage that Uroboros had illicitly acquired by hacking the pharmaceutical company’s mainframe.  As discussed in an earlier post about the Twitter prologue we ran in the lead-up to our new cycle of episodes, Uroboros had hijacked the Mason International Twitter account and seen incriminating Direct Message exchanges between the pharmaceutical company and factions linked to a the mysterious criminal kingpin called King.  But it occurred to me while I was devising the first of our new ARG experiences that there was more to mine from the “Twitter hacking” idea, if I could contrive a reason for the fans to be the ones doing the hacking.

So here was the plan: Fury of Solace and Uroboros have a conversation over Twitter suggesting that Mason International might still be using its Twitter account to carry on some of its illegal business.  Uroboros insists that after Mason International had regained control of their Twitter feed, the company upgraded their security such that their Twitter account was now impenetrable.  But Solace suggests that if they could only find the Twitter accounts of some of the other players in Mason’s crimes, their Twitter security might not be as tight.

At one point, Uroboros had posted on his blog a crude chart mapping out the various organizations that he believed were shell companies in King’s criminal empire.  Since Uroboros had established a connection between Mason International and King, the other companies in his chart would be the first potential Mason co-conspirators that our anti-heroes would seek out.  So our first order of business was directing Fury of Solace’s Twitter followers back to the graphic, and encouraging them to see if any of those companies had accounts on Twitter.  And of course our fans found some of them, because I’d created the accounts a few days earlier.

Next, we had to find a way for our heroes to hack into one of these accounts, @KonigInc, and contrive a reason that the fans needed to be inextricably involved in the process.  Basically, I knew I needed another party who had inside knowledge of the conspiracy to step forward and offer to divulge Konig Inc.’s password.  I had two options for this: we could either introduce a heretofore unseen whistleblower via a newly created Twitter account, or we could go back to our old staple, the enigmatic prophet Augur.  Augur was intimately involved in Fury of Solace’s origin, and in our first Twitter-based ARG, he posted clues which allowed The Orphan to gain access to one of Fury of Solace’s password-protected videos and thereby save Max Mason’s life.  As a prophet, fans were willing to accept that he had access to knowledge that he wouldn’t otherwise have had.  Ultimately, I decide to go with Augur on this one, mainly because he had a few Twitter followers of his own from earlier in the series, and since this ARG already hinged on the involvement of the new character Uroboros who I knew very few people were following, I thought it would be needlessly confusing to introduce another new Twitter account out of the blue for a one-off whistleblower and expect fans to find that account and play along.  It was easier to go with an established character, which is ultimately what we did.

But the question then became, why can’t Augur just give the password to Fury of Solace or Uroboros?  What possible reason could there be to insert some fan into the process as a middle man?  The conceit I ended up using was this: Augur wanted to give the password to an uninvolved third party, because he feared that whatever incriminating evidence was uncovered would be more easily dismissed if it came from the mouths of two people with outspoken anti-Mason-International agendas.  So Augur Tweeted that the first third party who sent him an @ reply would be given the password.

And not only did one of our loyal fans play along, he even checked the settings for the KonigInc Twitter account and attempted to login to the e-mail address attached to it using the same password.  I’d had the foresight to make the password to the e-mail address different from the Twitter password, but still, I hadn’t necessarily expected anyone to delve that deeply.  Not only that, the same fan wisely pointed out that he could continue to access the account to keep tabs on the supposed Mason International shell company, which made me realize that I could occasionally send more DM’s from the account and see if our loyal fan ever picked up on it.  You can find the recap of this entire ARG here.

Stay tuned for another entry next Wednesday!

Twitter: Over, Under Around and Through

When we released the bulk of our initial “Fury of Solace” material, back in 2008-2009, fans were very actively interacting with the characters on Twitter, and that was an important part of the unfolding story.  I actually managed to keep the Twitter accounts active for a decent amount of time after we had stopped releasing new material,  but as our production on this latest cycle stretched out to multiple years, it became unrealistic to upkeep the Twitter accounts when no actual story was taking place.  So the character Twitter accounts fell quiet, and we had a good amount of follower attrition.  However, as we were gearing up for the release of this new cycle, I wanted to reinvigorate the Twitter audience, reach out to our old die-hard fans and get the Twitter pages jumping again, because that kind of Twitter interaction would continue to be an important part of our storytelling process as the show went forward.

So we came up with a four-week Twitter prologue, concocting one major story point for each week leading up to our release, which would give the characters a talking point for each week, something to discuss and argue about, and to invite fan input as well.  And not that this came as too much as a surprise, but fans don’t necessarily jump onboard for Twitter chatter alone.  Some of our die-hard fans from back in the day did take part, however, and in so doing they reminded me once again just how smart and savvy our fans really are.  Not only did they ask all the right questions, they even discovered character accounts that I have not to advertised in any way shape or form to this day.

Back when we started the series, there were maybe four different character Twitter accounts.  Now there’s about 5 times that many.  And I’m trying to encourage organic discovery of these accounts to some degree.  So, as mentioned above, some of the character accounts aren’t officially listed anywhere, they can only be found by fans who pay enough attention to the central cast to notice who those characters are sending @replies to.  And even during the Twitter prologue, before we released any of our new videos, some of our die-hard fans proved just how much they were paying attention.  We’ve actually introduced a few characters on Twitter before they’ve shown up on screen, which has been an interesting storytelling experience in and of itself.  I know the folks over at “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” have been doing that as well, to great effect.

I was also able to use these Twitter plots to bridge some holes in the overall story.  For instance, a large part of the story in the new “Fury of Solace” cycle centered around a warehouse owned by a company called Konig Inc.  Konig Inc., we learned, was just a shell company with ties to Mason International, the “evil” pharmaceutical company that both Fury of Solace and Uroboros are attempting to take down.  Now,  Konig Inc. was first introduced into our story on Uroboros’ conspiracy blog, The Flashlight.  But looking back at the old posts, when Uroboros first became aware of Konig Inc., he didn’t realize it had any ties to Mason International at all: at the outset, Uroboros was interested in Konig because it was one of dozens of shell companies allegedly owned by a mysterious crime kingpin called King.  The writers and I knew all along that this King was ultimately going to be linked to Mason International, but it occurred to me that that connection was not officially established in any of the videos we had planned.   So I devised a way to link the two in one of the stories from the Twitter prologue.

One week of the prologue centered around Uroboros hijacking the Mason International Twitter account and using it to dispense some of the pharmaceutical company’s harmful secrets.  Since Uroboros wasn’t going to come into his own as a central character until our new cycle was released, the primary purpose of this Twitter story arc was to bring Uroboros into our audience’s consciousness by allowing him to interact with some of our more established characters.  But I realized I could kill two birds with one stone.  If Uroboros gained access to the Mason International Twitter account, he would also be privy to the company’s private direct message exchanges.  And it occurred to me that this was our best opportunity to connect Mason International to King and his criminal empire.  After Mason International regained control of their Twitter account, Uroboros reported that he had seen DM exchanges between the pharmaceutical company and factions that were known King collaborators.  And that important story connection was thereby made!  And I of course chronicled the entire event via storify so that it could be referenced back to as part of the ever-evolving narrative of the show.

In this last case, we were able to make the Twitter chatter not only relevant to the plot, but actually integral to it, and this is something I’d recommend doing from time to time if you can swing it.  Fans will be all the more likely to engage in social media discourse with the characters if they know that it will sometimes put them in a position to learn key plot points before the rest of the world.  But, admittedly, you have to walk a fine line with this: A large percentage of your fan base are going to be casual viewers who only watch the videos and aren’t particularly interested in delving into the transmedia experience, so it’s important that you find a way to convey to them any off-screen developments that are necessary for them to understand the overall story.  In our particular case, we used a storytelling device I introduced in an earlier post as the “third-person narrative,” a short paragraph or two of written text that accompanies each live-action episode, to contextualize it, and link to relevant supplementary content that enhances the viewing experience.

Example of third-person narrative.

That’s going to be it for this week, but stay tuned for a new post next Wednesday!

Miracle Mile Paradox

I’m devoting this week’s entry to an L.A.-based ARG that just wrapped up this past Sunday, the Miracle Mile Paradox.  The experience was produced by Transmedia L.A., a local group that hosts monthly meetups and ad hoc events to bring together Los Angeles-based transmedia enthusiasts.  If you’re in L.A. and you’re into this stuff, I strongly suggest you sign up for the free meetup group and come to a meeting!  Miracle Mile Paradox is now officially over, so I don’t feel bad posting spoilers here, but if you want to try to piece the whole story together after the fact before reading any further, this piece on ARGnet is a good place to start.

MMP kicked off back in March when rare antiquities collector Rex Higgs stumbled across a set of blueprints for a mysterious device called the Time Switch.  Rex promptly set up a Kickstarter to fund his construction of the machine, the proceeds of which were used by Transmedia L.A. to fund the ARG itself.  After successfully assembling the Time Switch, the device began receiving transmissions from a woman named Jane Winthrop…  messages from 1932.  Shortly thereafter, Rex received a cease and desist letter from a company called AIC, which claimed to be the sole patent holder for the Time Switch.  It soon became clear that AIC was using said technology for their own nefarious purposes, and that they would quash anyone who got in their way.

The ARG’s creators really made the stretch of Wilshire Blvd known as Miracle Mile a character unto itself, incorporating the Mile’s rich history into the story, and involving more than 30 local businesses in the unfolding plot.  After receiving repeated death threats from AIC, Rex was forced to hide his Time Switch from prying AIC eyes and go on the run, but not before seeding clues in several dozen Miracle Mile locations for his in-game friends and local participants to find.  Clues like his business card, which fans could only retrieve by talking to a real-world employee of one of the above-mentioned businesses.   Rex’s card entreated his would-be allies to call him ASAP.

Rex’s business card.

After calling the number on the card, players began to receive text messages leading them to other sites, where they could uncover information like the secret location of the Time Switch and the code to get inside.

Players knew they were on the right track when they saw this sticker in a store window.

Since Rex was in the wind, he was forced to rely on the kindness of strangers to go to the Time Switch location at certain prescribed times to receive further transmissions from the past.  Jane’s transmissions were garbled however, which fans attributed to AIC interference, and on top of that, her messages were encoded.  Cleaning up the garbled messages and cracking Jane’s code were just a few of the ways that non-local fans could get into the action.

I wish I’d had the opportunity to play through the entire ARG from the beginning, but the lion’s share of it overlapped with the release of my transmedia series “Fury of Solace,” so I was only able to jump in for the tail end.  That said, I was excited to be able to attend the final event this past Sunday, where about a dozen loyal players got the opportunity to see Rex and the Time Switch in person, and help the eccentric collector destroy the Time Switch and hammer the last nail in the coffin of the evil AIC Corporation.

Rex and the Time Switch.

Now, I was bound to be a fan of this project: I’m a sucker for a good time-travel story, and “fighting an evil corporation” is probably one of the most recurrent themes in my own writing, up to and including “Fury of Solace.”  And the more I delve into Miracle Mile Paradox, the more I’m convinced that me and the MMP team are on the same wavelength.  Not only are both of our transmedia projects centered around fans hacking into the accounts of evil mega-corporations, but we each, completely independently of one another, chose the same building, 5455 Wilshire Blvd., to be the stand-in for our respective evil company’s corporate headquarters!  Not only that, the live anti-AIC protest that Transmedia L.A. staged with characters and fans alike is strikingly similar to our original plan for the anti-Mason International protest that Uroboros spearheads in “Fury of Solace.”  We, too, wanted to stage our protest live and invite fans to participate, but important story points were scheduled to take place at our event as well, and we ultimately realized we didn’t have the infrastructure to stage a live event with fans AND get the footage we needed for the episode, so we had no choice but to drop the ARG component of that particular event.

With about 30 characters from soup to nuts, and a transmedia trail that included character blogs, websites, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, LinedIn profiles, Pinterest boards, Foursquare check-ins, and real-world interactive events, Miracle Mile Paradox was nothing if not an ambitious project.  Once the story wrapped up and we were all officially “out of game,” I had the opportunity to chat with one of the project’s brainchilds, April Arrglington, who was kind enough to give be a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the project.

MMP was lucky enough to have a team of writers, each of whom handled the social media presence for two or three characters, maximum.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, we experimented with that kind of character delegation for “Fury of Solace” when I assigned the bulk of the Uroboros story to one particular writing-team, and even that little taste made me realize that if you have the resources at your disposal, that’s the only way to go.  For one thing, divvying up the characters amongst different writers guarantees that they’ll each have distinct voices.  For another, and I can say this from experience, trying to manage 20 different character Twitter accounts single-handedly is a surefire way to develop Multiple Twitter Personality Disorder!

If I hadn’t been so busy releasing and managing “Fury of Solace,” I probably would have taken part in MMP from the beginning.  As it was, I was forced to try to reconstruct it at the very end.  One thing that does seem to be missing is an authoritative recap of everything that’s come before, though admittedly there are so many disparate threads that chronicling it while the game was in progress would have been nothing short of a herculean task.  Plus, I assume the creators didn’t want to deprive new players of the joy of digging through all of this stuff themselves (though coming into it at the tail end was a bit overwhelming even to an ARG veteran like myself).  But MMP’s rabid fans did do their best to bring new players up to speed, posting recaps and speculations on the in-game message boards, fan-made wikis and Unfiction threads.  Unfiction is actually a great resource for discovering all manner of ARG’s, follow the link and check it out if you haven’t already.  But if you’re going to post there yourself, make sure you read their rules carefully; they’re pretty strict about distinguishing between in-game and out-of-game posts, and about the guidelines when it comes to ARG creators posting trailheads to their own projects.

For people like me who want to get a bigger picture of the entire MMP event, exactly what went on behind the scenes and just how engaged the audience truly was, April is preparing a detailed case study of the entire experience, which she’ll be presenting at this year’s Storyworld Conference.  This year, Storyworld is being held in Los Angeles, from October 15th through 17th.  I’ll be attending, and I highly recommend that other transmedia enthusiasts do the same, if you can scrape together the cash.

That’s it for this week, folks.  See you next Wednesday, same transmedia time, same transmedia channel!

Transmedia Twitter Tips

A big part of the immersive transmedia experience for “Fury of Solace” has revolved around creating a social media presence for our characters, to give our fans the chance to interact directly with the characters.  Now, obviously, there are certain media properties that simply don’t lend themselves to this.  Period pieces set in the distant past or the far future, for example.  Or a show like “Lost,” where the main characters are marooned on an island without access to social media outlets like Twitter or Facebook (though that didn’t stop “Lost” from having a transmedia experience of its own: “The Lost Experience” was helmed by my friend and talented writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, and I’ll probably delve into that in greater detail in a future post).

In “Fury of Solace,” the primary social media outlets we’ve used are character Twitter accounts and character blogs.  And for today’s post, I’m going to focus specifically on Twitter.  Now, there are two primary ways to use Twitter to support your projects.  One is straight-up marketing, but I’m not going to talk too much about that here; Maybe I’ll address it in a future post, but for now, there are plenty of other  sources on the internet for ways to market your products on Twitter, written by people who are far more marketing-savvy than me.  No, in today’s post, I’ll be focusing on using Twitter to develop characters and enhance your story.

One very important aspect of developing a character on Twitter is how they use the social media platform to interact with their fellow characters, and the fans.  But historically, it has been notoriously difficult to follow conversation threads on Twitter.  When “Fury of Solace” began, Twitter didn’t even have an official “reply” function that threaded user interactions, and this made the prospect of following a conversation thread on Twitter a dicey proposition, even for people who were fairly Twitter savvy.  Now, this wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal for fans who were following the exchanges in real time, but I didn’t want fans who came to the show after the fact to have to pore over multiple Twitter feeds to painstakingly recreate plot-pertinent character interactions themselves.  So in those early days, I employed a method of archiving the conversations that was decidedly low tech: I favorited all of the relevant Tweets, took screen grabs of my favorited-Tweets page, and Frankensteined them together in Photoshop into a kind of Twitter timeline.  Fortunately, now there are sites like Storify that help me streamline that entire process.  Check it out if you haven’t already, it’s an extremely useful tool for creators in our rarified profession, allowing you to create a handy narrative out of Facebook status updates, Tweets and tumblr posts, etc.  I was able to use Storify to search for Tweets by specific users, easily drag the relevant Tweets into my timeline and then embed the entire thing on our website.  And unlike my old ad hoc method, clicking on one of the Tweets in a Storify project actually links back to the Twitter account from whence they came.

When I archived the story-relevant Twitter conversations, I didn’t only include Tweets from the characters, I included relevant fan Tweets as well.  And just by dint of being a completionist, I stumbled upon an added incentive for fans to take part in the story on Twitter: It didn’t occur to me at the time, but the fans whose Tweets were included were excited to be immortalized in “Fury of Solace” canon.

Now, I should point out that if Twitter conversations between characters are an integral part of your story, and if you’re trying to foster organic discovery of secondary character Twitter accounts as we have been, there is an important aspect of @replies that you should be aware of.  When Twitter first started, any and every Tweet you sent out would show up in the Twitter streams of all of your followers, regardless of the content.  But Twitter eventually instigated a new system to determine whether or not your followers see your @replies in their Twitter stream: In short, the only people who see your @replies in their stream are the people who both follow you and the person you’re sending the @reply to.  If your followers physically click on your Twitter page, they can see all of the Tweets you’ve ever posted, but failing that, @replies sent to lesser-known characters can very easily fly beneath your audience’s radar.

But there is a simple way to get around this.  The only tweets that stand to be omitted from your followers’ Twitter streams are ones that begin with the @ symbol.  So nowadays, when Twitter users want their conversations to be public, it’s become common practice to include a period as the first character of your Tweet, before the @ symbol.  The person you’re sending the @reply to will still be notified that they’ve been mentioned in a Tweet, but all of your followers will see the exchange in their Twitter streams as well.

That’s going to be it for this week.  Next week I’ll take a break from “Fury of Solace” to discuss Transmedia L.A.’s groundbreaking  “Miracle Mile Paradox,” which wraps up this Saturday.

Retroactive Continuity

Retcon is a comic book term, short for retroactive continuity.  It grew out of the fact that the stories of certain iconic comic characters were told over an incredibly protracted period of time, 60 or 70 years in some cases, without the characters getting appreciably older in the process.   In much the same way that classical mythology was re-appropriated and revised from one society to the next, each successive generation of comic creators has made subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) alterations to key elements of a character’s backstory, to keep the character relevant to contemporary society.  And not only do the story points themselves change, but as so much time has passed, the time periods change as well.  If you don’t have the luxury of a character who was trapped in suspended animation since World War II, moving a character’s origin forward in time is often the only way to explain how a character from that age now inhabits modern times.

And believe it or not, in the relatively short period of time that “Fury of Solace” has been on the world stage, we’ve had to resort to both varieties of retcon.  Due to the realities of our indie production, we’ve been forced to revise the timeline of our story several times already.  This is, of course, a direct result of the cross-platform, transmedia story that we’re trying to tell.  If this was just a traditional narrative, with only live-action content, we could (though it would be far from ideal) have a hiatus of several years between one installment and the next without any significant alteration being necessary, the audience would just assume that the much-delayed new content occurred right on the heels of the old.  There are a number of elements of our story, however, that make these production exigencies problematic.

For one thing, our characters live and breathe in what purports to be real time on social media sites like Twitter.  With a blog, you can change the date after the fact (and believe me, that we have done), but so far, at least, a Tweet is indelibly timestampped for now and forever, a snapshot of a particular moment in time.  So here was our dilemma: in telling this story, we realized two things.  One, unlike most web series, “Fury of Solace” is very serialized.  It’s not the kind of thing you can release every so often and expect people to be able to follow the narrative flow.  So after telling the beginning of our story in fits and starts, we decided that the best approach was to produce a significant chunk of material all at once, and to release it as back-to-back as possible.  But with the reality that all of the cast and crew were fitting in production amidst full-time, gainful employment, time marched ever forward without the story progressing in kind.

And the thing is, I wanted to have our cake and eat it too.  Through social media, I wanted to give the illusion that these characters not only do exist, but have existed for some time.  In some ways, that is the only silver lining to our production being as drawn out as it was (that, and the fact that we had the foresight to create Twitter accounts for characters well in advance of them actually being introduced in the narrative).  But at the same time, when our last new material was released in 2010, it simply did not make sense story-wise that the 2 years of real-time that passed in the interim between then and our 2012 release would have passed in the story-world of “Fury of Solace” as well, given that the story had not progressed at all during that time.  This is exactly why we wound up retroactively claiming that the material we shot at San Diego Comic-Con 2010 featuring the character of Uroboros was taking place concurrently with the material we shot at Comic-Con 2009 featuring Fury of Solace.  And why we subsequently retconned both events again, to pretend they occurred at Comic-Con 2011.  For new viewers, hopefully the transition is relatively seamless.  From their perspective, the only real evidence of our time jumps will be if they scroll back through the characters’ Twitter timelines and realize that the dates don’t match up.  But ultimately, I think having an archived, social-media history between these characters is worth dealing with those kind of discrepancies.

When you put something on celluloid, or our modern-day digital equivalent, I still feel like that ought be considered verboten.  I certainly bemoaned George Lucas’ “Star Wars” special editions as much as the next fanboy.  So maybe I’m being hypocritical when I say this, but this format we’re using for “Fury of Solace” not only encourages retroactive continuity, it actually almost requires it.  Especially since we’re trying to develop characters that exist with some autonomy outside of the story.  It eventually dawned on me that since we have character blogsites that exist autonomously from the website for the show, those blogs have to be complete in and of themselves.  There has to be a blog entry, for instance, that says “This is my first blog.”  And since we’ve backdated some blog entries to make it seem like they started before the series did, this requires us to have a pretty good handle on what blog-worthy events would have occurred in that pre-show time period.  And I know my co-executive producer Matt Hartman is rightfully wary of us locking ourselves in to certain plot points by introducing these backdated blogs into canon, and while that definitely can be a slippery slope, I walk a fine line as far as the blogs are concerned.

The way I’m currently approaching it is, as our story continues to unfold, if a detail here or there about a certain backstory needs to change to suit the overall story, I would not hesitate in the slightest to revise a written blog after the fact.  I guess what I’m saying is, if you hear a character says something in live-action, it’s canon.  If you read it in a blog, maybe that “fact” is a little more fluid.  Over the course of the show, I’ve also retroactively gone in and added blogs that weren’t there before, chronologically in between blogs that had already been published.  Is this potentially-confusing and perhaps unfair to longtime viewers who were there when those surrounding posts were originally published?  Perhaps.  Unfortunately, until we have a little bit of money in our coffers and can shoot this stuff roughly in real time, I don’t see as we can avoid it.  I regret having to make these changes for the sake of the viewers who have been with us since the beginning, but hopefully, in the end, the changes won’t leave too many people scratching their heads.  And I promise, we’ll try to hit the retcon button as infrequently as is humanly possible!

Uroboros Rising

Many of the characters in my web series “Fury of Solace” have evolved along the lines of what I like to call the Cantina Effect.  We all know that when George Lucas shot the infamous “Star Wars” Mos Eisely Cantina scene back in 1977, he did not have names and exhaustive back stories for every single random alien in that bar.  But all of those characters are certainly fully fleshed-out in the here and now.  Likewise, when I created Max Mason for Episode 2 of the series, he was only supposed to be a one-off, Lex-Luthor-esque villain archetype, to pit Fury of Solace and the Orphan’s moralities against each other.  Needless to say, Max Mason quickly evolved to become the central villain of season 1.

The character of Uroboros comes from similarly modest origins.  When the “Fury of Solace” writing staff was conceiving of the story for what would become episode 5, we wanted to have a “low-rent villain” crash a Mason International event.  That low-rent villain became Uroboros, the character who now has a written blog with more than 90 entries, and by the end of our most recent cycle of videos will have had more individual screen time than any other character.

This actually gave way to an interesting narrative experiment.  In a perfect world, where I had countless writers at my disposal and endless resources with which to pay them, I would assign each member of our ensemble cast to one particular writer.  That writer would write all of the character’s blogs, the character’s Tweets, etc.  That would free me up to handle all of my other writing and producing duties, and ensure that the characters had a unified social media voice.  So, for a while at least, I assigned the Uroboros character to the immeasurably-talented writing team of Josh and Juliana Weiss-Roessler.  The pair wrote untold dozens of blog posts, all of the Uroboros vlogs, and the script for episode 5 which features Uroboros prominently.  Ultimately, as production dragged on, some of the blog-writing duties had to be farmed out to other writers, but the core of the character was handled by one unified voice, which turned out to be very cool, and very beneficial.  Hopefully I get the opportunity to try that again as the series continues.

As Uroboros grew more and more prominent, it became increasingly apparent to me and my Co-EP Matt Hartman that his first vlog was a little bit too out of the blue.  He just showed up, talking at the camera, and it would have been asking a lot of the audience to drop them into the deep end like that.  So we conceived of another Comic-Con event to provide what would hopefully be a more satisfactory introduction to the character, so he’d be better established by the time we released his first vlog.  This Comic-Con event wasn’t an ARG per se, it didn’t really give fans the opportunity to directly participate outside of bearing witness to what was happening on Twitter, it was just a story event we happened to stage at Comic-Con in 2010.  For one thing, we wanted to explain why this conspiracy blogger was wearing a home-made superhero mask, because this was not addressed in any of the material we had previously produced.  Now, we had already established during the 2009 Comic-Con ARG that Mason International had allegedly been interviewing potential superhero bodyguards at Comic-Con that year.  So for the first time in the history of our series, we employed the age-old comic book staple of the retcon.  Retcon is short for retroactive continuity, and I’ll be publishing an entire post dedicated to that idea next week, but for now, suffice to say that we had the crazy idea to shoot some material with Uroboros at Comic-Con 2010 and present that material in such a way as if it had been happening concurrently with the material we shot at Comic-Con 2009.

So that’s exactly what we did.  So while Fury of Solace was accosting Sara Ward at a seafood restaurant across from the San Diego convention center, Uroboros donned a home-made mask in an attempt to infiltrate Mason International’s superhero recruitment drive.  Confusing?  Absolutely.  Why was it a necessary evil?  For the answer to that, stay tuned for the next entry!

Finding Sara Ward

The first episode of my web series “Fury of Solace” was release in October of 2008, and our first Twitter-based ARG (chronicled in the last post) went live in early July, 2009.  And the proximity to Comic-Con was not an accident.  Our first, purely virtual ARG was such a success that come Comic-Con, we were going to kick it up a notch and organize our first real-world ARG.  Obviously, this was logistically a little more difficult.

The conceit of the event was that Mason International had a booth at Comic-Con, and according to Fury of Solace, the pharmaceutical company’s true purpose in attending the convention was to recruit real-life superheroes to keep their CEO safe from Fury of Solace.  So Solace tracked Mason to San Diego, intent on thwarting the CEO’s plans.  And fans of the series attending the convention were going to get a chance to help him.  We staged the ARG on Saturday, July 25th, and after establishing the setup, Fury of Solace tweeted that Max Mason was staying at the San Diego Omni.  Solace himself would have investigated the lead, but he was pinned down by the cops in another part of San Diego, so he enlisted the aid of his followers, asking them to pay a visit to the lobby of the Omni hotel and see if there were any messages for Max Mason.  Of course, there was a message for Max Mason, because we had left one: the message said that a woman named Sara Ward would meet Mason for dinner at a seafood restaurant across from the San Diego convention center.  At the risk of giving a very minor spoiler, Sara Ward is a character who will be important in “Fury of Solace” further down the line.  That night, we made a reservation for two at the seafood restaurant in question, and posted the actress who plays Sara Ward there on the patio, supposedly waiting for her dinner date, Max Mason, to show up.  After learning Mason’s plans thanks to the help of his followers, Fury of Solace arrived at the restaurant and accosted Ms. Ward, convinced that she was the frontrunner for the Mason International superhero bodyguard position.   We had friends of ours film the entire encounter on their flip phones, culminating in a chase through downtown San Diego, and edited it all together to make it look like found-footage shot by actual witnesses.

Ultimately, this first real-world ARG was also a success, and many of our fans who were unable to attend Comic-Con that year wished they’d been able to participate.  And this brings me to another important aspect of the way I try to handle these ARG’s: chronicling them for posterity.  I didn’t want our “Fury of Solace” ARG events to just be flashes in the pan, one-off events that you only knew about if you happened to be paying attention at the time.  I wanted to find a way to record them for posterity, so future fans who were so inclined could follow those parts of the story after the fact.  This marked the beginning of a storytelling device I’ve been referring to as a Third-Person Narrative, which basically consists of the blow-by-blow of the whole event, told from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, which contextualized the whole affair, and brought together all of the disparate mediums we used in telling the tale, live-action videos, Twitter, etc.  To see what I mean, click here for a Third-Person Narration of the our first real-life ARG on the “Fury of Solace” site.

This Third-Person Narrative device went on to become a staple of the entire series, not just the ARG recaps.  Because at a certain point, we realized that we were going to have to find a way to guide viewers through the story we were telling.  For instance, one of our characters called Uroboros is the proprietor of conspiracy blog called “The Flashlight.”  Now, when I set out to create character blogs for the series, I had two mandates.  One, I wanted to back-date entries to make it seem like the blogs existed before they actually did, before the show officially began.  The second thing I wanted to do with these blogs was to include some entries that weren’t necessarily plot pertinent, to give the illusion that these characters are real people, leading lives that don’t always revolve around the core story we’re trying to tell.  Now, admittedly, in the case of “The Flashlight,” we may have gone a bit overboard.  At the present time, that blog has about 80 entries, back-dated 4 years.  Now, we certainly don’t expect the casual viewer to read all of those blogs.  Hell, even particularly avid viewers probably won’t delve that deeply.  But there are plot-pertinent blogs peppered amongst all of that flotsam and jetsam, and the trick becomes, how do we direct viewers to read those blogs, when they’re buried amidst all of this other noise?  Our answer at the moment is this Third-Person Narrative device.  So now, each of our videos are accompanied by a Third-Person Narrative, some of which act like footnotes that link to relevant supplementary content, like blog posts, Twitter conversations, etc.

Next up, the play-by-play of our second Comic-Con based event, introducing Maxwell Glick’s character Uroboros.

When Towers Fall

When I created the three-minute video that was to become the pilot episode for my web series “Fury of Solace,” I knew I had a larger story to tell with the character, but I didn’t know when or if I would ever get the chance to tell it.  That first video was actually a contest entry for the “Dr. Horrible” DVD release.  Joss Whedon’s three-part, web-based superhero musical starred Neil Patrick Harris as the title character, a supervillain hell-bent on gaining admittance to a group called the Evil League of Evil.  At Comic-Con in 2008, at the “Dr. Horrible” panel, Whedon and co. unofficially announced the contest: fans were invited to create villains of their own, and shoot a three-minute video application to the Evil League of Evil.  The best entries would be features on the “Dr. Horrible” DVD, which was scheduled for release in December of that year.

I pulled together a terrific team of collaborators to produce what became the first episode of “Fury of Solace,” and promoted our contest entry far and wide.  We received great accolades amongst the “Dr. Horrible” fandom (garnering a few mentions on Whedon’s official Fan Site Whedonesque), and though we weren’t ultimately singled out for inclusion on the DVD, the glowing response we received made me realize that the “Fury of Solace” journey couldn’t end there.

Since we didn’t even know for sure that “Fury of Solace” was going to be a series at the outset, the immersive transmedia experience and the ARG elements didn’t come until later.  First came the Twitter accounts.  Obviously, the first one out of the gate was the account for the title character, Fury of Solace.  Now, it occurred to me at the time that in a perfect world, there would be a twitter account for the character, and a twitter account for the show, and never the twain shall meet.  Because nothing breaks the fourth wall more than your character saying “check out our new episode!”  But at the time, I resigned myself to combining those two functions into one account: the thought being that I couldn’t guarantee that everyone who followed one account would follow the other, and it seemed more efficient for everyone to follow the one account that would be a one-stop shop.  Now, in recent years, web series like “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” have had some success keeping a strict division between the Twitter accounts that exist in the world of the show and the official series account, but for the time being, I’m sticking to our original model.

There are a lot of cool things about creating a social media presence for your characters.  First of all, the level of audience involvement it facilitates is unprecedented.  Since “Fury of Solace” is a superhero musical, no one is under any illusion that these characters actually exist, but on a regular basis for the past several years, thousands of people have enjoyed pretending that they are.  Also, these social media profiles are great for character development: we’re taught that the attention span of the average internet-video viewer is all but nil, so conventional wisdom for web video has always been the shorter the better, and sometimes that means being brutally efficient with the content we’re conveying in the live-action episodes.  We don’t always have the luxury that hour-television dramas enjoy to explore character in our actual episodes, so giving those characters lives outside of the show, using blogs, vlogs and Twitter accounts, makes that part of our job that much easier.  More than that, the social media profiles can actually be used to tell a story!  And this is where I’ll finally segue into the origins of “Fury of Solace’s” first ARG.

I made a decision early on that “Fury of Solace” was not going to live in live-action only.  This was due in large part to the involvement of my friend Evaun Wallington, who came onto the project at the very beginning.  Evaun designed the look for our two lead characters, the now-iconic series logo, and helped me out in countless other ways along the way.  Evaun is a phenomenal artist, and an aspiring comic book illustrator, so it seemed to me that part of the “Fury of Solace” tale needed to be told via online comics.  It is a superhero story, after all, so I didn’t want to stray too far from the medium that spawned the genre.  Plus, there were aspects of the story that we were simply never going to be able to afford to shoot on an indie-web-series budget, so making some of the installments comics freed us up to tell whatever story we wanted.

I won’t pretend however that I wasn’t a little bit unsure whether or not our fans would latch onto this format, only because I’d never seen it done quite this way before.  We’re all accustomed to comic books being adapted to movies and vice versa, but it’s rare (if not entirely unprecedented) that a narrative switches back and forth between the two, some episodes told in live action, some told in comics.  Our second episode was slated to be an 8-page online comic, and before that was ultimately released, I wanted to make sure that the transition from our first live-action episode to our first comic book installment was as seamless as possible.  So I came up with an idea: To explain it, I’m going to have to give you a barebones description of the show and its characters (for a more detailed look, hop on over to www.furyofsolace.com).  Fury of Solace is a supervillain terrorist who targets corrupt politicians and corporate moguls for extermination.  There to thwart him at every turn is the superhero called the Orphan, who holds all life sacred and can’t condone Solace’s murderous ways.  Solace’s current target is Max Mason, president and CEO of pharmaceutical giant Mason International.  Episode two, our first 8-page comic, tells the story of the Orphan foiling Solace’s latest plot to assassinate Max Mason.  Solace had taken Mason captive in his corporate headquarters and rigged the building to explode.  But the Orphan showed up in time to save the evil CEO’s bacon.  But how did the Orphan know to show up in time?  That’s where our first ARG comes in.

First off, we produced a “Fury of Solace” video not unlike the typical terrorist ransom video.  We tied the actor who plays Max Mason to a chair, and had a silhouetted Fury of Solace deliver a diatribe about why Max Mason deserved to die.  Then, we posted the video to the website, protected behind a password.  The Orphan then proceeded to entreat her Twitter followers to help her uncover the password, so she could learn of Fury of Solace’s latest plot and put a stop to it.  And to my delight, our social-media savvy fans played along and ultimately did solve the puzzle!

The Orphan promptly thanked her followers for helping with the password, and, upon watching the video and learning that Solace was holed up with Mason on the penthouse of Mason Tower, she rushed to save the day.  And the successful completion of our first ARG triggered the release of Episode 2, the online comic which told the story of what happened when the Orphan arrived.  The narrative of our first Twitter ARG is chronicled here on the Fury of Solace site.

This whole exercise was tremendously fulfilling to us as creators, and proved to us that the audience would be willing to accept this storytelling format.  Additionally, the Fury of Solace terror video was our first in-world video, and as the show developed, videos like that, which ostensibly exist within the world of the show, would become a very important part of our storytelling repertoire.

Stay tuned for next week’s entry, when we delve into our first attempt to kick things up a notch with a real-world ARG.

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